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When a “Usually Reclusive” Terrorist Leader Gives a Press Conference

While fundamentalist jihadi leaders decry the ills of modernity and globalization, they surely know how to exploit modern, global media and communication for their propaganda - in favor of turning back the clock of history to times past.  Benjamin Barber's important mid-1980s book Jihad vs. McWorld attached the “jihad” label not specifically to Muslim fundamentalists but to other religious and secular anti-globalization/modernization extremists as well; he concluded that the two sides need each other in spite of the deep gap between them.

Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was a forerunner of today’s preachers of fundamentalist Islam, in that he mobilized his jihad against the Shah regime via tape cassettes, which were produced in his exile in France and smuggled into Iran. After his triumphant return and during the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Ayatollah proved his media savvy as he gave interviews and released statements to news organizations. You can be sure that he would have used the Internet to communicate with friend and foe if it had been available to him at the time.

The leftist terrorists of the 1970s and 1980s released communiqués to explain their grievances and actions; the Hezbollah terrorists who held western hostages in the 1980s gave news conferences and made videotapes of their captives available to Western TV networks; Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh selected the site of his deadly bombing because there was ample room for the right TV-camera angles.

I thought of these and other terrorists “going public” about skills and methods, when I read an article about the press conference of “usually reclusive leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud” in the New York Times. According to Jane Paletz,

With great fanfare, the Pakistani Army flew journalists to a rugged corner of the nation’s lawless tribal areas in May to show how decisively it had destroyed the lairs of the Taliban including a school for suicide bombers, in fighting early this year. Then, just days later, the usually reclusive leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud held a news conference of his own, in the same region, to show just who was in charge.

He rolled up in an expensive-looking Toyota pickup packed with heavily armed Taliban fighters, according to the Pakistani journalists invited to attend. Squatting on the floor of a government school, Mr. Mehsud, clasping a new Kalashnikov, announced he would press his fight against the American military across the border in Afghanistan.

‘Islam does not recognize boundaries,’ he told the journalists, in accounts published in Pakistani newspapers and reported by the BBC. ‘There can be no deal with the United States.’

To be sure, the news conference was staged to send messages to the Pakistani Army and Government on the one hand, and to the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and on the hunt for Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. Mehsud took to the media stage in order to show Pakistanis and Afghans, and the rest of the world, that he and his cronies are untouchable in their stronghold of South Waziristan.

One wonders, of course, why Mehsud did not follow the example of his al-Qaeda allies and deliver his messages by posting a communiqué or videotape on the Internet. My guess is that he wanted in the first place to defy his foes by appearing in person before invited Pakistani reporters. But he may have also chosen the press as vehicle for his propaganda because he thought this would ensure that his various target audiences at home and abroad would learn about this act of defiance.

In this case, first the Pakistani media, and thereafter the international press that also carried the news, were once again caught between a rock and a hard place: if the media carry out their responsibility to fully inform the public, they become carriers of terrorist propaganda; if they don't report terrorists’ communications, they violate their duty to inform the public.

Censorship of and self-censorship in the media are dangerous. Therefore, more thought must be given inside and outside the press to the question of how to report terrorist communication—not whether to report at all.

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